Oniontown Pastoral: A County Tour
When I get discouraged about the civilized world, I often turn to E. B. “Andy” White, essayist for The New Yorker and Harper’s and author of Charlotte’s Web. White was not only a great prose stylist, but the last century’s most devoted naysayer to change.
He frowned upon atomic energy: “I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”
He rejected conventional wisdom: “Many of the commonest assumptions, it seems to me, are arbitrary ones: that the new is better than the old, the untried superior to the tried, the complex more advantageous than the simple, the fast quicker than the slow, [and] the big greater than the small.”
And he challenged orthodoxy—and got my mind working just the other day: “Our whole economy hangs precariously on the assumption that the higher you go the better off you are, and that unless more stuff is produced in 1958 than was produced in 1957, . . . you are headed for trouble, living in danger and maybe in squalor.”
I agree, but wondered, “Is growth necessary for a healthy United States economy?” Actually, I hoped the investigation might lead to existential insights—my habitual trajectory of thought.
The Internet ambushed me with economic principles. Turns out experts disagree so diametrically that Andy could be heard laughing from the curmudgeons’ bleachers in heaven.
I also received a wave of nausea for my research efforts. In 2014, Forbes printed Peter Ferrara’s “Why Economic Growth Is Exponentially More Important Than Income Inequality,” which presents dizzying statistics and a blueprint for our technological future.
The author rhapsodizes over futuristic physicist Michio Kaku, who claims, “When you need to see a doctor, you’ll talk to a wall in your home, and an animated artificially intelligent doctor will appear. You’ll scan your body with a hand-held MRI machine, the ‘Robodoc’ will analyze the results, and you’ll receive a diagnosis that is 99% accurate.”
My AI doc better be more skillful than my smart phone. Siri, my allegedly intelligent assistant, can’t locate a Dunkin Donuts. Why should I trust a virtual endocrinologist with my pancreas?
More to the point, why would I ever confide in a wall? In 1955, White grumbled at his telephone company “for having saddled us with dials and deprived us of our beloved operators.” My misgivings about healthcare via hologram will seem similarly quaint in eighty years.
Still, I have a quick response for Ferrara and Kaku: “I’ll pass!”
Give me Andy instead. He was never a churchgoer, but he held a divining rod for the sacred. And he would have delighted in the county tour parishioner Dave, a retired cow veterinarian, took me on last week.
We wandered a 4-H Club show, where I visited Jocelyn and her prize-winning cows and greeted pigs, goats, a llama and an alpaca.
We browsed at McCartney’s Feed and Hardware, which is packed with implements exotic to my city eyes and operates without cash registers. The clerks make change directly out of their pockets.
And Dave took me to the farmland he owns with wife Anne, where I got a primer on round bales and found out that cows can sleep out under the stars.
Andy would have pronounced the tour medicinal. Even now, his commentary on the wondrous land and skepticism about progress persist in my imagination. “A 99% accurate Robodoc might increase longevity,” he might ask, “but will the extra years hold any savor?”
While pastoring in my beloved Oniontown, I’ll honor E. B. White’s words and devote myself to “living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”